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2004: The Year Open Source Changed Everything

Technology scribes and big thinkers alike will look back on 2004 as one of those pivotal years when the tectonic plates shifted beneath the computing industry.

Like 1981, when IBM's fateful decision to license an operating system from a then-unknown company gave rise to Microsoft, or, in 1995, when the Netscape IPO primed the tech stock frenzy, 2004 may also rank as a standout year.

(And I'm not even talking about the Sun/Microsoft settlement, which, so far, is more talk than action -- save for a fat check from Microsoft to end another lawsuit.)

The breakthrough this time is the cutting of cords that keep client devices tethered to servers. IBM's new Workplace Client Technology, a generation of rich client middleware components, could allow devices to access servers across different operating systems and keep them working while disconnected from a server.

The arrival of more functional rich clients is driven by what industry expert Tim O'Reilly calls "infoware," networked applications like Google's search results or eBay's auction system that are key factors behind the shift.

Look past the tired "Battle of the Desktop Titans" theme to another metaphor. You might say the industry is starting to revolve around a different Sun in the technology universe -- with the twinklings of rich clients as planets in this universe of diverse computing devices.

As IBM explained at a recent news conference, customers won't have to deal with separate applications on the Web and their desktop PCs with the new clients. With a server-managed client model, IBM is pushing how enterprises manage and deploy business applications and data to a range of client services as needed: PDAs, cell phones and laptops for starters.

An advantage of the new middleware is that the host server doesn't care about the "operating environment." It works with Windows, Linux, or handheld devices such as PalmOne products and the latest cell phones. A version for Macintosh systems is coming. This accelerating innovation is another reason we think 2004 will prove a pivotal year for open source and open standards in general.

The Lotus Workplace Client offerings are built with open source development tools from the Eclipse project that IBM helped seed. Now, independent software vendors such as Colligo (an IBM partner) are building products on the platform's open source "shell." This helps customers' flexibility with choices, and helps vendors port their code into the Eclipse environment while benefiting from the fruit of their intellectual property.

Barry Jinks, Colligo's CEO, says the value of open standards is that customers get more choice. "Look at the trend in general. In areas where there are open standards and acceptance of open standards you've seen a lot of innovation. A closed environment just takes longer."

The Colligo plug-in products for the Workplace Client products, expected to be introduced this year, help decompose functions that are normally provided by a server and let them function where there's no server present. And Jinks doesn't mean just mini data-crunching on PDAs, only to synch it all up at the next server session. This includes messaging apps, file transfer, copying files, and printers. In short, Colligo's Workgroup Addition product helps extend the experience of a LAN into what the company calls an instant network, one that is private and secure.

Plus, these aren't brand new applications either, which is another key driver.

"Large companies are not looking to rip and replace their existing applications. They're looking to get more value out of what they've got," Jinks adds. After all, who wants to write off all the training on current applications and systems -- not to mention the data stored in these systems? With the rich clients and plug-ins, customers have a way to use old applications when they are disconnected from the network, as though they were logged into their office LAN. As Jinks puts it: "It literally extends enterprise software applications into intermittent or occasionally connected environments."

Jinks expects to see a flurry of new applications in the next few years that will leverage computing capabilities not all that widespread with current networking architectures -- thanks to the maturity of open standards.

And on yet another level, IBM's tools signal how far Big Blue has come in its transformation from a hardware provider that looked into the abyss over 20 years ago, saw commoditization of its desktop computer architecture, saw what happened to companies that didn't adapt to the changing market, and started to adapt.

The change also suggests that Big Blue has been honing the lessons it learned all those years ago. As O'Reilly reminds us in some of his extensive publications on the topic: As "cloned personal computers were built by thousands of manufacturers large and small, IBM lost its leadership in the new market. Software became the new sun that the industry revolved around; Microsoft, not IBM, became the most important company in the computer industry."

O'Reilly sees parallels between then and now. For one, back then, IBM thought they owned the market. Microsoft thinks they own the market but are paranoid enough about it today, he notes. The other point is that value is migrating up the stack.

"The value of an eBay, Amazon.com is not captured at the software layer. That's one principle," he tells internetnews.com.

IBM's arrival with rich client middleware is also a signal that the industry is finally building applications for this new computing era, rather than constantly building for a desktop architecture model, which is to say, a print-server architecture.

"We need to think about what kinds of things have to go into network applications in order to make them really work," O'Reilly adds. "We need to start building apps from the get go so they fit the new paradigm," especially with networked software.

There are plenty of mysteries yet to unfold as all these factors start to line up, he adds, such as how Intel will face the open standards movement as value migrates both up the "stack" as well as down to the components inside the computing devices. Will Intel embrace open source platforms with its chip design systems?

Plus, there are never just one or two factors that define these fundamental shifts. Think of them as sliders on a board. "You move this slider all the way to that direction, move this other one, as you're thinking of open source collaboration, or a set of IP issues, or commodization of software, and start playing with all these things," O'Reilly says.

"It's easy to say this isn't really happening. Then if you step back and look at how software is developed, or how vendors are approaching it, you see we're moving to on demand [software], where synchronization is critical."

The end of the mini-computer era was written about years before it happened. "The companies that saw that, such as HP and got it, survived. Digital didn't. In a similar way, there's a huge set of changes, of which open source is only one part."

Fast forward to 2004, some 10 years after the rise of the Web foretold these big shifts, and the changes to computing as we know it are becoming clear.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internetnews.com